Archive for August, 2012

27.VIII.2012 – A brief guest-blogpiece about consciousness and how it gets that way.

Consciousness is mysterious. It isn’t just casually mysterious, it is REALLY mysterious, and perhaps, ultimately, the most mysterious thing our species has going for it. It is also hard to pin down, though neuroscience would like to and the philosophy of mind has been trying to for aeons. It is perhaps the hardest thing to pin down by its very nature: it may be the one most unpindownable thing of all.

Why is this? Try an experiment: you are reading these words right now, so you must be conscious of them. But how do you know you are? Because you are conscious of it? How are you conscious of that? We are able to recognise what it is to be aware of being conscious, though this is deceptively obvious.

When you wake up in the morning and realise you are awake, this is not necessarily the same thing as to realise you are conscious. Yet being awake clearly implies you are conscious. They are the same thing.

Even in a dream you are in some sense awake because you are aware of your dream-experience (even if you are not aware you are dreaming, though this is possible too).

In fact, at no point are we ever anything but conscious in some way, and the two obvious exceptions to this—dreamless deep sleep and death—that we assume to lack consciousness, can only be inferences from consciousness, that we could by definition never verify because we would lack the consciousness of them to do so.

So that their lacking ‘being-conscious’ can necessarily only ever remain hypothetical. Yet many billions of the scientific-physicalist and atheistic faithful maintain this necessarily unverifiable hypothesis as a dogmatic fact. Mysterious!

If, whether out of scientific habit, or sheer curiosity, you make ‘being conscious’ the object of your consciousness (or ‘being-conscious’) then it involves a strange circularity. You are being conscious of being-conscious purely by virtue of being conscious. Consciousness tries to objectify consciousness by virtue of consciousness. Surely this is just a kind of vicious circle that can’t get anywhere.

Even if you can, for a moment, make of your currently-being-conscious an object-consciousness, is that object still properly consciousness, or only a second-order representation of it? Is it even an ‘object’ at all?

To try to turn consciousness into an object seems to be to misrepresent it, because looked at more closely ‘it’ seems to behave more like an action, a process, like Heraclitus’ river which he said you can’t step into twice.

In the case of consciousness (among other things, like the ‘self’, with which consciousness has an intimate relationship) it could be said you can’t ‘step into’ it once, let alone twice. As soon as you try, it is not ‘the same’ ‘consciousness’ (or being-conscious). It is necessarily something else. There is always a remainder left over: the precondition, a primordial one, for being able to think, perceive or be conscious of anything at all.

Being-conscious will always be a step behind any possible statement we can make about it.

This is a problem for science, which requires the object of analysis to be a relatively stable and ‘objectifiable’ one. I can perceive and investigate external phenomena, such as stars and planets and rainbows, as things that have some objective existence, even when they also appear to subsist both ‘objectively’ and by virtue of my being-conscious of them.

But when I try to investigate ‘being-conscious’ in the same way, my methodology runs into the problem of its own reflexivity, which seems to mire the project in a deep and swampy subjectivity, or else a hall of mirrors whose infinite regress seems to promise only ultimate uncertainty about what I’m trying to clarify: what it is to be conscious.

But this might not be a problem from another perspective. Some contemplative traditions, especially those of the Hindu Vedanta, or of Buddhism, take it as a challenge: for them it might even be of ultimate import in their desire to understand ourselves and our given conscious circumstances more richly and fully.

The objective open-endedness of consciousness is something they have explored quite rigorously for thousands of years, and some of the reports they bring back are interesting not just in themselves, or for the spiritual or transcendental ambitions they express, but also for the purely ‘scientific’ impulse of getting some more data on what, from the perspective of the contemporary philosophy of mind, has reached an intractable, and intriguing, impasse.

It is a compelling fact that modern evolutionary biology and neurophysiology cannot explain ‘where’ or how ‘consciousness’ originates. Whether the conundrum of consciousness remains an obscure yet glaringly present question mark, or begins to be seen scientifically and otherwise as the most fruitful portal into further knowledge of ourselves and our universe (and how by virtue of consciousness they are not entirely separable) is a major question for the 21st century.

My guess is that taking up the challenge of that mystery could begin to provide some sorely-needed responses to who we are and what reality means in all the scientific, psychological, social and religious forms that now appear to fall short of our questions.

We invest billions of dollars into sending a space-probe to Mars. The irony is that, for each one of us, no expense is needed to enquire into the furthest stellar reaches of consciousness beyond the curiosity and willingness to suspend the assumptions, beliefs and worldviews that keep us from taking the journey.

If not ultimate answers, at the very least we’ll gain some new, stimulating and very possibly liberating ways of being still more conscious than we are now.

Copyright © 2012


At the “Happiness and its Causes” conference blog: http://blogs.terrapinn.com/happiness/2012/08/27/consciousness-mysterious-guest-blogger-martin-kovan/

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